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June 2020

discogs How to Buy the Best Turntable Set-Up for Any Budget

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Every music-based forum, including Discogs, is filled with posts from people wanting advice about buying their first turntable, upgrading their existing one, or putting together a complete system.

It can be daunting, especially these days. When brick-and-mortar stereo shops were a normal part of the landscape, you could spend time actually listening to components and learning firsthand what they did and how.

Now, not so much. Even the fairly ubiquitous Best Buy doesn’t physically stock thmounte vast majority of the turntables it sells, so asking fellow travelers for advice is not only necessary but smart. What makes it more confounding is that a lot of new vinyl fans were born during a time when mass-market turntables were barely being produced.

And that brings us to Discogs’ down-and-dirty guide to putting together a complete two-channel turntable set-up. We’ve chosen three general price points that are meant to loosely correspond to your current obsession level for record collecting (and your income, of course). These are real-world systems with budgets, not daydream systems.

Each system will be built around a turntable from Pro-Ject, the Austrian manufacturer which has become a dominant player in the world of vinyl. After that, it gets pretty wide open, with the emphasis being on getting the most bang for your buck.

If you need help understanding some of these terms and specs for the gear while you’re shopping, scroll down to the bottom for a few basic definitions. It’ll make things easier.

Beginner Turntable Set-up

AKA the Noob Alert System
Budget: $700

First up is at the entry-level, which is where a lot of vinyl converts find themselves these days. At this level, we’re trying to meet three goals: simplicity, affordability, and some measure of upgradable options. The total budget is limited to $700.

The turntable is the Pro-Ject T1, widely available online for about $330. This fully manual model comes with a built-in phono preamp and an Ortofon OM-5 cartridge already installed (or mounted). It spins at 33.3 and 45 RPM.

Pro-Ject T1 turntable

This means that all you need are powered speakers to start making music. The choices in our budget include the Kanto YU4, the PreSonus Eris E4.5, the Vanatoo Transparent Zero (T0), and the Edifier S1000DB. We narrowed it down to these because each features Bluetooth connectivity, and because phones are our BFFs, it’s crucial to have the ability to stream music when the occasion demands.

Each model has its ardent fans and all are rated highly for sound quality, so it might come down to aesthetics.

The Vanatoo look like what they are: desktop speakers for a computer, neither attractive or unattractive. The Edifier have a 1970s vibe which is cool, owing to the walnut veneer, while the PreSonus go for a sleek, modern look. The Kanto are also very modern and have the added bonus of being available in a variety of colors, including a very sexy teal.

Turntable Pro-Ject T1 $330
Speakers Kanto YU4 $330
Record Cleaner Groovewasher Starter Kit $30
Stylus Cleaner Moongel $7

The Kanto have one more bonus, and it’s a good one. It has its own built-in phono stage, which means you can turn off the Pro-Ject’s phono stage if you prefer the one in the Kanto. The Pro-Ject phono stage is plenty good, but it’s nice to have options. Let’s go with the Kanto, then, which at normal retail for about $330, brings our system total to $660. You can always shop around, of course.

The extra $40 should be spent on a versatile cleaning kit, such as the Turntable Lab edition of the Groovewasher record cleaner starter kit. For $30, you get spray cleaner, a mat on which to place your LP while cleaning, a second mat that protects the LP’s label from getting wet, and a nice looking walnut-handled brush.

Use the supplied maintenance brush to keep the main brush clean, and then the main brush can also be used to wipe dust off a record before playing. You also need to keep your stylus clean, and the Moongel resonance pads, available at Amazon and any decent instrument shop, will do the trick for $7. Just dip the stylus into the gel and it gently pulls off dust and dirt.

Intermediate Turntable Set-up

AKA the You-Just-Got-a-Raise System
Budget: $1,500

Look at you, suddenly rolling around in piles of cash. Now let’s spend some. Our mid-level system has a budget of $1,500, which opens up a lot of possibilities for people who have decided that vinyl is actually a passion and not a phase.

The turntable is the $399 Pro-Ject Debut Carbon DC, one of the most popular models on the planet. It comes packaged with an Ortofon 2M Red cartridge but does not have a phono stage. It is upgradable, however, but let’s get to that in a minute.

Pro-Ject Debut Carbon DC turntable

The Debut Carbon DC is also a manual with 33.3 and 45 speeds. It comes with a far better arm, platter, and base (aka a plinth) than the T1. There are color options, and for my money, I’m going with the sporty red. That thing is sweet.

A nice carbon fiber arm means better tracking, which is a term that refers to how well a stylus stays in the groove without hiccups. The Debut’s motor is isolated from the turntable’s plinth by a thermoplastic elastomer suspension system; this tweak reduces the motor’s inclination to vibrate the plinth, which would then vibrate the tonearm, which would then vibrate the cartridge. You don’t want that. It means muddy sound, possible skips, and less fun. We want more fun.

Since the Debut Carbon DC doesn’t have a phono stage, we get a world of choices. The easiest and most effective option would be to get an integrated amplifier that has a phono stage already included, and there are a lot to choose from — mo’ money, mo’ problems.

Integrateds that include a phono stage include the Marantz PM5005 ($500), Cambridge Audio AXA35 ($350), NAD C316BEE V2 ($450), Denon PMA-600NE ($400), and Yamaha A-S301 ($350).

I’ve had extensive experience with products from Marantz, Yamaha, Denon, and NAD. All are consistently excellent companies. Cambridge’s reputation is inarguably top tier. Marantz is one of my favorite brands, and NAD and Yamaha have long histories of producing high-value components.

But one of my favorite integrateds of all time was a Denon PMA 500v that was stolen from my car after DJing a birthday party. For its time, it did everything and did it exceptionally well. And now we have the PMA-600NE, which offers a ridiculous amount of features for $400.

The Denon PMA-600NE is listed as having 70 watts per channel (WPC) into 4 Ohms, which in the real world is 45 WPC into 8 Ohms, the most common speaker impedance. Still plenty of power. Remarkably, the highly-rated Denon also has Bluetooth connectivity and a built-in 192kHz/24bit digital-to-analog converter.

So in addition to being ready for vinyl, you can also connect to Bluetooth via Wi-Fi and stream digital music services. Believe me, you’ll use this — there comes a point in every record night when someone wants to stream something, and when you’re doing work around the house it’s nice to stream rather than flip records.

Turntable Pro-Ject Debut Carbon DC $399
Integrated Amplifier with Phono Stage Denon PMA-600NE $400
Speakers Elac Debut 2.0 B6.2 $350
Stylus Ortofon 2M Blue Replacement Stylus $189
Record Cleaner Spin Clean $80
Brush Audio-Technica Dust Brush $15
Stylus Cleaner Moongel $7
Record Mat Turntable Lab Cork Record Mat $20

Now, with our total up to $799, we move on to the speakers. I’ve owned many pairs of PSB Speakers and each one has inspired me to move up the line to higher-grade models. When it comes to affordable high-end speakers, PSB and Elac run the game.

The PSB Alpha 5 ($399) is the latest in a long series of Alpha models that have spent many years as a Stereophile recommended component, a tradition continued with these. What you’re going to get are a slightly warm tonal balance, incredible imaging, a surprisingly big sound for a small speaker and … not a lot of bass. The bass you do get is very tuneful and goes shockingly low given the speaker’s diminutive size.

But the Elac Debut 2.0 B6.2 ($350) is $50 cheaper and offers a fuller bass response in addition to doing everything else the PSBs can do. You can use the $50 to get a pair of cheap speaker stands and go nuts. But if space is an issue, the Alpha 5 is smaller (11 x 9.06 x 5.91 inches vs. 14.76 x 10.5 x 7.69 inches).

Let’s say you go with Elac, which means you’re up to $1,149. Next is a crucial upgrade from the Ortogon 2M Red cartridge included with the Pro-Ject. It’s fine, but kind of coarse-sounding, leaning toward playing rude rather than nice. But the stylus is replaceable, so drop $189 on the very good Ortofon 2M Blue stylus, which is interchangeable with the Red stylus, and save the Red for nights when you can just tell you’re gonna get loaded.

To finish up, you gotta get a Spin Clean; at $80, it’s the most effective and affordable wet record cleaner. Top it all off with that $7 Moongel, an Audio-Technica dust brush for $15, and a cork platter mat from Turntable Lab for $20.

That leaves you with $40 dollars. Chip in a little extra and buy some low-rent speaker stands or, if you already have something on which to put your Elacs, buy a record and a six-pack.

Advanced Turntable Set-up

AKA the High(ish)-End System
Budget: $3,500

We’re really upping the ante here. This category is for friends named Steve with well-paying jobs and stacks of disposable income, but it’s still nowhere near what a moderately insane audiophile will spend on a system. We’re setting the ceiling at $3,500, figuring that if you have a couple thousand records then you want them sounding not good, but exceptional.

I’ve been given the choice of starting with a Pro-Ject X1 or X2 turntable ($900 v. $1,300, respectively). In order to have more cash to play around with for speakers and electronics, let’s go with the very fine X1.

Pro-Ject X1 turntable

The X1 is a high quality ‘table, with a carbon fiber-over-aluminum tonearm designed specifically for the X series. Every important adjustment is available, including azimuth. with a mass of 10 grams, the arm will work with a wide variety of cartridges, although it comes with a well-regarded Sumiko Rainier. You can choose walnut, gloss white or piano black.

The speed is electronically controlled at the touch a button, the platter is 3.3 lbs. of acrylic, and the motor has been even further isolated from the plinth. Vinyl legend Michael Fremer gave the X1 a glowing review on AnalogPlanet.

Deciding on the amplification was easily the hardest part of putting this system together. There are a lot of options but every time something qualified in three categories it fell short in two more.

A lot of consideration was given to Parasound, one of the most venerable names in audio, and its NewClassic 200 integrated got a very long look. The Marantz PM8005 is a real honey, but for a system at this price point, a digital option is crucial. Products from Arcam, Rotel, Rega, and NAD all had contenders.

Some might consider the winning combination a wild card. Vincent Audio is based in Germany and I’ve owned and enjoyed several pieces of their gear for years with absolutely zero reliability issues and, more importantly, the company’s house sound is glorious. Their designs are a hybrid of tubes and solid state, and there’s nothing quite like getting the best of both worlds.

Vincent’s SV-500 integrated amp uses trickle-down tech from the award-winning Vincent SV-237, which costs nearly $3,000. The SV-500 costs $1,000 and includes a built-in DAC that can easily decode FLAC files and then some (although there is no Bluetooth). The Vincent sound is a very appealing combination of warmth, detail, and bass slam. Don’t let the 50 WPC rating fool you; Vincent amps have enormous power supplies and a lot of headroom.

The SV-500 doesn’t have a phono stage but you can add the highly-regarded Vincent PHO-8 standalone phono stage, a $450 piece of kit that seems to be perpetually on sale for $230. It’s a two-box system with a separate, beefy power supply.

Turntable Pro-Ject X1 $900
Integrated Amplifier  Vincent Audio SV-500 $1,000
Phono Stage Vincent PHO-8 $230
Speakers Wharfedale Diamond 11.3 $798
Record Cleaner Pro-Ject VC-S Record Cleaning Machine $449
Brush Turntable Lab Dust Brush $15
Stylus Cleaner Moongel $7

Speakers were only marginally easier to figure out. Although the Vincent sounds more powerful than 50 WPC, you can’t pair it with inefficient speakers. You also need speakers that sound good with a variety of genres, because if you’re so dedicated to vinyl that you’re spending $3,500 on a system, then your collection probably contains a whole lot of everything.

The pick here is the Wharfedale Diamond 11.3, a small tower speaker from the United Kingdom that can flirt with deep bass but also has a very well-defined midrange and treble. It’s a 2.5-way design, meaning that one 6-inch driver is used strictly for low frequencies, a second is used for upper bass and midrange, and a 1-inch tweeter tops it off.

The Wharfedales offer a stable 8 Ohm load and efficiency is an impressive 90dB, meaning it only takes one watt to give you music at a reasonable listening level. The Vincent will have zero issues driving these, and the slightly sweet sound of the Vincent will combine with the slightly sweet sound of the Wharfedales to make an extremely sweet sound.

The Wharfedales retail for $1,000, but street price has been $798 for quite some time, which brings our total system cost to $3,377 with one more major addition: the Pro-Ject VC-S vacuum record cleaning machine, available now for $449 from Turntable Lab. A wet scrub followed by a vacuuming is how you get your records sounding their best. Even new records should be cleaned because they show up littered with dirt, dust, and other contaminants. I know it sounds crazy, but just do it. Toss in the Moongel (mentioned in the Beginner section) and a Turntable Lab anti-static dust brush and we’re up to $3,399. Spend the extra $101 on affordable cabling and speaker wire from Monoprice and call it a day.

Holy crap, that was a lot of work just to get called an idiot in the comment section. But any one of these systems is going to sound great, and careful shopping will surely save you a few bucks to spend on records.

Definitions

pro-ject turntable speed control definitionsPro-Ject Audio Systems/Facebook

Turntable: The world’s greatest invention, because it magically turns vinyl into music. There are two basic kinds: one that uses a rubber belt to spin the platter (belt-drive) and one where the platter is driven by a motor directly attached to the platter (direct-drive). There are also idler-wheel models but those are so far in the minority that there’s no reason to get into it. Another crucial distinction is that some turntables, of either variety, have a built-in phono preamplifier and some do not. You’ll see why this is important in a minute.

Cartridge: Some people just call these “needles” but those folks should be taken out back. A phono cartridge is primarily comprised of a body, magnets, and a cantilever on which is mounted a diamond stylus (aka needle).

Moving magnet cartridges are the most common, followed by moving coil. The cantilever and stylus work together to follow a record’s grooves, which creates a magnetic field, which is then turned into a tiny signal that is passed along by those delicate red, white, green, and blue wires.

Phono preamplifier: This is where the tiny signal ends up. A phono preamp, also called a phono stage, equalizes the signal to match the industry-standard RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) curve used when music is recorded for vinyl. A phono stage also amplifies the signal so that we can bang our heads with zero fucks given.

Some stereo equipment comes with a quality phono stage included and some do not. In that case, your turntable will need to have a built-in phono stage, which is relatively common these days, or you can buy one separately.

Integrated amplifier, receiver, preamplifier, power amplifier: These are all variations of gear that have the same function: to send that tiny signal one step further to a pair of speakers, through which you blast the Melvins until the cops are called.

A preamplifier and power amp are separate components that are connected via cables; the preamp controls the power amp which feeds power to the speakers. Some gear heads swear that the best sound is achieved only by using separates.

But an integrated amp, which is simply a preamp and power amp in one unit, is more than a viable option. There are many terrific sounding integrateds. A receiver adds an AM/FM radio tuner to an integrated, which … sure?

Loudspeakers: The land of woofers and tweeters. You have two basic categories: passive, which require amplification, and active, which have built-in amps. After that it’s a matter of size — you have desktop speakers, stand-mounted speakers, and floor-standing speakers, all of which come in various shapes and sizes.

Record cleaning system: This is non-negotiable. A lot of things that anti-vinyl dweebs like to complain about can be greatly improved by cleaning your records and keeping them clean, things like ticks, pops, and static. There are a lot of options and we’ve touched on several.

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Bryan Ferry and Amanda Lear at the Biba party – London, 1974

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Meg Remy Meg Remy on an Essential Album Right Now and What It Means to be a Record Collector

The other day, I posed a hypothetical to my husband: “What if vinyl records get recalled because the material is needed for human survival?” I was imagining records being turned into some fuel or heat source. He didn’t find this very likely. I tried another: “What if the record collectors of North America are forced into migrant status? Are we going to carry our record collections and stereos around with us from place to place?” I was imagining Toronto being ravaged by some climate catastrophe, us being left with no choice but to flee with, at most, the necessities we can carry, shutting the door on our apartment and our record collection forever. This forced me to realize that we are only able to have a record collection because we have a steady place to live.

Years ago in some small northeastern U.S. town, I was granted access into the apartment-sized record collection of some Old Head who shall remain nameless. This was not the place where this person lived. This was where their collection “lived,” as if it was a human being that could appreciate the tall ceilings and old wood floors. Kind of like how, legally, a corporation is recognized as a “person.” What is the impact of viewing a collection as a living entity? And what about the ecological footprints of our collections? Each record is shipped somewhere, and that imprecise statistic alone frightens me. I sometimes wonder if we are a community of music lovers or a community of fossil fuel-addicted, private-property beneficiaries? The truth is that we are both, and that’s okay. Life is an incessant paradox.

A package arrives at my door containing Ted Hawkins’ Watch Your Step LPand I forget all the hypotheticals, statistics, and impotent guilt. I’m absorbed in the nutrition of good music. I’ve needed this record in my collection ever since I was on tour lying in some Berlin hostel bed with a swollen sprained ankle and my dear friend, Chris, sympathetically sent me the song, “Sorry You’re Sick.”

I’d be your doctor if only I could. What do you want from the liquor store? Something sour or something sweet? I’ll buy you all that your belly can hold. You can be sure you won’t suffer no more.

I became obsessed with the tender humor of this song and the way Ted sang like he was bleeding to death but had accepted it. When I gave the whole album a try and heard the song “The Lost Ones,” I became the one bleeding to death. It’s a song from the perspective of a scared young boy trying to take care of his sick mother and younger-than-him sisters with no help from any adults.

I am not working because I am not old enough. My sisters are too small and they cannot help us. We’ve all tried praying but I don’t know how to pray.

How often do we get songs from the viewpoint of a child? What is more important than children and their well-being? I can only think of one thing of equal importance: Earth. I hear the Ever-Giving Earth pleading with us,

You wouldn’t force me to live like you if you knew the agony that I am going through. Oh please, stay close to me.

Meg Remy is the artist behind U.S. Girls. Her newest album, Heavy Light, dropped in early 2020. She lives in Toronto, Canada. All italics are Ted Hawkins’ lyrics from the album Watch Your Step. Feature image by Karen Alonzo.

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CAS The Story of Kraftwerk ‘The Man-Machine’

I cannot remember when I first heard Kraftwerk, but it doesn’t matter as much of the pop music that I was listening to in my formative years was born out of Kraftwerk’s artistic mission – to make modern music using modern instruments. Bands and artists like David Bowie, Prince, Eurythmics, Joy Divisions and New Order, OMD, Ultravox, Depeche Mode, Human League and Gary Numan had an enormous impact upon me and without doubt, some of these bands may not have even existed had it not been for Kraftwerk.

Ditto Afrika Bambaataa whose 1982 anthem ‘Planet Rock’, the progenitor of the electro genre, sampled Kraftwerk’s ‘Numbers’. And without Kraftwerk, techno would have never developed.  According to techno pioneer Derrick May, Detroit techno was a… “complete mistake … like George Clinton and Kraftwerk caught in an elevator, with only a sequencer to keep them company.”

 The futurist sounds of Kraftwerk were all around me, even if I was unaware of it.

Although Kraftwerk were forging a new radical sound, they too looked to the past as they built upon the ideas of artistic, cultural, and conceptual movements from the early 20th century: futurism, Bauhaus, musique concrete. Just like the founders of these movements (Marinetti, Walter Gropius, Pierre Schaeffer), Kraftwerk was primarily concerned with both reflecting upon and advancing their modern age. Kraftwerk co-founder Ralf Hutter once said, the question is, ‘What does Germany sound like today? That’s where we started.’

Kraftwerk was founded by fellow students Hutter and Schneider in 1970, after they had played around as The Organisation’ in the late 60’s. They wanted the music of this new incarnation to forge a new cultural identity for post-war Germany which at the time was regurgitating the popular culture of America. They weren’t alone as their Krautrock contemporaries such as Can, Neu, Cluster, Faust and Harmonia were also experimenting with new sounds and ways of music-making.


Listen: Kraftwerk ‘The Man-Machine’ Musical Lead-Up Playlist

But Kraftwerk had the most defined mission. They built a concept around the menschmaschine (or human machine) powered by a Kraftwerk (power station). They played with German stereotypes like the efficient and emotionless worker – Hutter: ‘We define ourselves as sound-scientists, or as musical workers. Every day we go to the studio, work on the instruments, talk to the engineers – it’s not a musician’s existence, in the way of rehearsing with instruments.”

Having their own private studio, Kling Klang in Dusseldorf, gave them more freedom and time to experiment with the latest analogue technology like tape loops, echo and reverb machines and electronic oscillators. With engineer Conny Plank who also worked with many of their contemporaries like Cluster, Neu! and Harmonia Deluxe, Kraftwerk recorded three albums of what many considered to be little more than muso-noodlings.


Listen: Kraftwerk ‘The Man-Machine’ Legacy Playlist

Their fourth album, Autobahn, is the record in which they really found their footing and their ideas started to gel. This was to be their breakthrough album – their mass art statement. Although Hutter and Schneider’s intellectual and conceptual musings were regarded as high-brow- they were also fans of the sunny, American pop music that had dominated German airwaves in their own formative years.

They were fans of The Beach Boys and their finely constructed three-minute stories that explored the depths of the nascent teenager’s psyche. They took the Beach Boys ‘fun, fun, fun, till Daddy takes my T-Bird Away’ and Teutonised it into ‘Wird Fahren Fahren Fahren auf der autobahn’ or We drive, drive, drive on the autobahn – using a detached vocal style borrows from another German tradition – sprechgesang (spoken singing).

Both the single edit which hit the charts and side-long album version were extraordinarily ground-breaking when they came out in 1974; its effect cannot be underplayed. The legendary music journo Lester Bangs called Autobahn ‘more than just a record – it’s an indictment!’ and went on to say that Kraftwerk had recorded one of the most radical songs in Western Popular Music since Elvis Presley’s recording of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ in 1956.

The following year they released Radio-Activity, their first album with Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür. This was a concept album based around the theme of radio communication and featured the mechanistic sound that would shortly come to define Kraftwerk – especially on the title track. They were making what Schneider called ‘tone-films’ with the aim to recreate realism. But as far as they were concerned, this wasn’t a cold kind of realism.

In an interview with Karl Dallas for Melody Maker, Hutter said, “We are ambivalent about the impersonal nature of modern life. On the one hand we are excited by the colossal scale and coldness of modern technology. On the other hand, we can be repelled by it. What we try to do, however, is to stay right in the middle, drawing feelings from both aspects. As a result, our music is at the same time impersonal, and also very personal.”

As they found the traditional drum kit, too noisy and not sensitive enough, they created their own electronic drum kit and patented it.


Read more: The Story of Kraftwerk ‘Trans-Europe Express’

From a radio interview at the time Hutter said, ‘We first developed our music instruments from tapes and electronic oscillators and wave generators and filters in order to express our musical ideas. Today we can do it best with all electronic instruments. We cannot play science fiction music on the guitar – It’s an instrument that was invented in the middle ages in Spain. So, when we want do the spirit of today you have to choose the medium of today to do it. There is no difference between a musician and a technician.’

Their following album Trans-Europe Express marked their complete transformation into the Kraftwerk we know today. Not fully satisfied with the music technology that was on the market in the mid-Seventies, Kraftwerk had commissioned Matten & Wiechers from Synthesizerstudio Bonn to design and build the Synthanorma Sequenzer which was a 32-step, 16-channel sequencer they used to control the electronic sources which create the rhythmic textures on the album.

The song ‘Showroom Dummies’ became a big hit in discos and Kraftwerk were also getting kudos from David Bowie who proclaimed his love of the band and included a tribute to Florian with the song ‘V-2 Schneider’ on ‘Heroes’. This also brought the band wider popular recognition.

With a disco hit under their belt and wider popular recognition, the stage was now set for The Man-Machine, an album that would further refine their stripped-down synth-funk and that would become their most dance-able album yet.

The album was released at the peak of disco, and Euro-disco in particular was pushing the genre into more electronic territory and claiming a large slice of the American dance charts. French producer Cerrone had topped charts with the dance floor hit ‘Supernature’ in 1977. And the same year over in Munich, Italian producer Giorgio Moroder basically invented the trademark euro-disco sound when he produced ‘I Feel Love’ featuring a young American singer named Donna Summer.

So even if the pulsing beats that define The Man-Machine were an anomaly to the rock fans and critics who had been following Kraftwerk’s motorik beat in their Krautrock manifestation, the new synth-funk rhythms were more recognisable to the dancers who flocked to dancefloors worldwide every weekend.


Read more: The Story of Kraftwerk “Autobahn”

The album opens with ‘The Robots’ which could be seen as their trademark song. It opens with the lines, ‘I am your servant, I am your worker’ spoken/sung in Russian and then the lyrics switch to German with ‘Now we are full of energy. We are the Robots, we work automatically, now we want to dance mechanic.’ At their concert, the song was often be performed by robots and is probably one of their most concise expressions of their obsession of the fusion with man and technology.

‘Spacelab’ is the only Kraftwerk song that deals with space exploration. In 1973 NASA launched their Skylab into the earth’s orbit and the European Space Agency commenced their own Spacelab project the following year (with their first mission taking place in 1981). In Kraftwerk’s 2018 performance in Stuttgart, they had a live link to the International Space Station which allowed German astronaut and Kraftwerk fan Alexander Gerst to speak directly to the concert audience declaring the ISS is a man-machine, the most complex and valuable machine humankind has ever built.

‘Metropolis’ refers to the 1927 German Expressionist science fiction film by Fritz Lang. It was set in a futuristic urban dystopia. As the eeriest song on the album, sometimes even menacing, perhaps this is Kraftwerk making a statement that used unethically, technology could also be humanity’s demise. As Kraftwerk were not into discussing their intentions behind songs, we will never know for sure.

‘The Model’ became their biggest hit, in fact it reached number one in the UK four years later as the B-Side to ‘Computer Love’ and the song most directly responsible for influencing the synth-pop of the 80’s. It refers to models, or in this case women who adapt the role of an artificial person, a mannequin, standing immovable whilst being photographed.

Both ‘The Robots’ and ‘The Model’ like the previous album’s ‘Showroom Dummies’ examines the idea of authenticity versus inauthenticity; human vs object; real vs artifice. In fact, this is the lens through which Kraftwerk’s efforts are also assessed: this is music made by computers and performed by robots – is that real? Is that human? Rather than give us answers, Kraftwerk are happy to pose the questions, and in the process they often take the mick out of themselves almost in a self-deprecating way.

Visuals became increasingly important through Kraftwerk’s life. Artist Emil Schult began his ‘artistic cooperation’ with the band in 1972 and contributed to lyrics and designed many of their album covers which became integral to the Kraftwerk concept and mystique. The Man-Machine album cover was designed by Karl Klefisch and was based on the work by Russian suprematist El Lissitzky.


Listen: Kraftwerk ‘Trans-Europe Express’ Musical Lead-Up Playlist

He popularized the geometric and limited colour art form that sought to move away from the world of natural forms and subjects in order to access “the supremacy of pure feeling’ and spirituality. The back cover image is an adaptation of a graphic from Lissitzky’s children’s book called About Two Squares: A Suprematist Tale of Two Squares in Six Constructions.

When it was released in 1978, ‘The Man-Machine’ opinions were divided but critics were quick to notice this was a cultural milestone. Jon Savage noted in Sounds it was “probably the most completely, clearly realised conception, packaging and presentation of a particular mood since the first Ramones album”.

In Record Mirror, Tim Lott viewed it as more intellectually stimulating rather than emotive: “Their roots in technology are blatant in the six titles — ‘The Robots’, ‘Spacelab’, ‘Metropolis’, ‘The Modal’, ‘Neon Lights’, ‘The Man-Machine’. All are objects, things; nothing that is human. They are a compelling music unit, an obsessive beat machine that touches the scientific/mathematic parts of the brain without producing confusion in others.”

But in 1982, when it finally hit the charts and blatantly inspired every fresh synth-pop act going, The Man-Machine was recognised as both an artistic and musical turning point that was both thought-provoking and soulful.

By Colleen ‘Cosmo’ Murphy

A special thank you to Rock’s Back Pages for letting us access their amazing archive of pre-digital fanzine and magazine articles.

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CAS Safe & Sound Webinar: tips to improve your sound system

Our third ‘Safe & Sound’ webinar is on Wednesday 8th July at 8pm BST in which Colleen and a special guest will discuss what you can do to maximise your own sound system and room acoustics for a better listening experience.

If you want to join us, subscribe as a Member here. The £10 subscription will give you free entry not only to Safe & Sound, but also our Classic Album Pub Quiz (17th July) and this month’s Album Club (26th July).

Safe & Sound Webinar with Colleen ‘Cosmo’ Murphy and special guest

Wednesday 8th July at 8pm BST

Invitees will receive a message with a private Zoom link an hour before the event starts.

Subscribe as a Member

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Dr. Jennifer Otter Bickerdicke Pride-Filled Playlist: 5 LGBTQ+ Artists to Get Your Party Started

I lived in San Francisco for over 15 years. June was, of course, the big kick-off of summer for those lucky days we got sun; I lived in Glen Park for most of my time in the city by the bay, the fog so thick at times that we nicknamed our apartment Skull Mountain for the refrigeration-like temperature drop that occurred in our neighbourhood ecosystem compared to the rest of the metropolis. Besides the chance to maybe have a barbecue — again, weather permitting — June also marked the big shindig of the year: Pride.

The whole month was a celebration of the LGBTQ+ community, with a long weekend specifically dedicated to parades, parties, talks, concerts, and overall revelry. Everyone went, from leather daddies to former sorority girls, all giddy with the festive atmosphere, glitter, and most likely a couple alcohol libations. Tidal waves of folks from the outer boroughs (or as we often deridingly called them, the maligned “bridge and tunnel” dwellers) of the Bay Area travelled in. Airports were flooded with those wanting to celebrate the occasion in ground zero of all things weird, wacky, and freeing. San Francisco, up until the last year or so I was a resident, still was the land of the dreamer, maverick, and rebel, a place where you could let your true, unbridled authentic self be safely on display in a public way. The technology goldrush and Silicon Valley giants were right on the brink of arguably making things too expensive and doing a real-life Dr. Seuss Lorax-ing of much of the funk and flavor, but all of that was forgotten during what we just referred to as Pride. The commemoration of the brave protestors and participants of Stonewall riots in 1969 was literally completely inclusive, far before the term had become the buzzword battered and batted around as it is today.

This year, the traditional schedule of Pride in San Francisco has been moved “online” to adhere to safe social distancing while still being festive. However, if you feel like being in the party Pride mood via your own turntable, here is a short round-up of some LGBTQ+ artists to check out and listen to as you throw your own extravaganza.

Bessie Smith

The Empress of Blues, Bessie Smith spent two decades at the turn of the 20th century as one of the most popular female performers of the genre, providing influence for legions of artists in the genre as well as a blueprint for jazz vocalists. Smith certainly had plenty of painful life experiences to infuse her work with. By the time she was nine, the young girl was orphaned and impoverished, turning to busking on the streets to earn money. This allowed her to hone her talent, eventually seeing Smith signed to Columbia Records, where she made over 160 recordings for the label.

Songs like “Downhearted Blues,” “Gimme a Pigfoot (and a Bottle of Beer),” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” helped Smith become the highest-paid Black entertainer of her time. Thanks to the aide of a new invention -– the radio — even audiences in the segregated south became fans of Smith as her songs quickly became high rotation staples.

Big Freedia

Freddie Ross, known publicly as Big Freedia, came to mainstream prominence when Queen Bey herself used a vocal sample of Freedia’s on the searing 2016 song “Formation.” At the time, Freedia had already garnered a sizeable fanbase for her work in bounce music, a genre of call and response hip-hop first made popular in New Orleans. With the help of multiple television performances and public appearances, including leading a crowd of several hundred in New York to set a Guinness World Record for twerking, Freedia’s reputation as the formidable performer grew.

With the help of several albums — 2003’s Queen Diva, 2010’s Big Freedia Hitz Vol. 1, and 2014’s Just Be Free — Freedia’s fanbase expanded even further. Her 2018 single with Lizzo, “Karaoke,” is arguably one of the best summer anthems of the decade. Most recently, Freedia has dropped a regular slew of singles, including 2019’s “Raising Hell” with Kesha and 2020’s “House Party” collab with New Kids on the Block, written during social distancing.

Anohni

I first was introduced to Anohni via her band Antony and the Johnsons when the group’s self-titled debut LP was released by Secretly Canadian in 2004. Filed under the intriguing genre of “baroque pop,” this first offering garnered a dedicated fan base, among them Lou Reed, who appeared on the follow-up album, 2005’s I Am A Bird Now. The record’s themes of transformation, love and longing — perfectly captured by the haunting cover image of Warhol superstar Candy Darling literally on her death bed — brought much-deserved praise, including a 2005 Mercury Prize. I dare you to listen to horn-heavy album track “Fistful of Love” without feeling a stab of melancholy deep in your gut.



Three other releases with Antony and the Johnsons followed: 2009’s The Crying Light, 2010’s Swanlights, 2012’s live album Cut the World, and the live DVD soundtrack Turning in 2014. In 2015, Anohni announced the release of Hopelessness, the first album to be put out under the name she had been using for some time in her personal life. If high-energy dance music is more your thing, make sure you check out Anohni’s 2008 collaboration with Hercules and the Love Affair, the infectious “Blind.”

Rob Halford

As lead singer of the iconic heavy metal band Judas Priest, Rob Halford could be the original leather daddy. Formed in 1969, the group went on to be pioneers of the headbanging genre, with Halford often embodying the very definition of masculinity. From the heavily studded belts and bracelets to the zealous love for Harley Davidson, Halford was as rough and tough as they come.



Songs like 1978’s “Delivering the Goods” from the 1979 classic album Hell Bent for Leather, “Heading Out to the Highway” taken from 1981’s Point of Entry, and, of course, the eternal classic “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming,” the single from 1982’s Screaming for Vengeance, helped bring the singer to icon status amongst his peers. When he came out publicly on MTV in 1998, he broke down in tears while simultaneously forcing legions of fans around the world to reimagine traditional assumed gender roles.

Le Tigre

This band must be mentioned, as their lyrics — often dealing with issues pertaining to feminism and the LGBTQ+ community — are rallying cries for change while being total dance floor fillers. Originally starting as the back-up band for Kathleen Hanna’s solo project Julie Ruin, Le Tigre went on to release three full-length albums: 1999’s Le Tigre, 2001’s Feminist Sweepstakes, and 2004’s This Island. While the trio of records all have strong songs of empowerment and politics, the first self-titled debut is a must-have for its wide array of sing-along classics and cultural references.



Lead track “Deceptacon” will have you dancing around your living room, with its clapping drum loop and be-bop chorus; who can refuse the brilliant couplet “I can see your disco disco dick / Is sucking my heart out of my mind?” “Hot Topic” is a groovy finger-snapping number, listing off badass women and pioneers. Favourite track though has to be the timeless “Eau d’Bedroom Dancing,” a homage to the unparalleled therapy a solo session with a favourite song can provide. The first time I heard this played out at a club was in San Francisco. My friend Omar had a warm-up DJ slot and dropped the cut. It stopped me in my tracks — totally epic.

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Ron Hart 10 Classic Albums from Grand Royal, the Beastie Boys’ Record Label

With all this talk of Beastie Boys in the context of the Spike Jonze-directed 2020 documentary, Beastie Boys Story, there isn’t a better time to revisit one of the most underrated facets of the band’s legacy.

Launching with their seminal third album, Check Your Head, Grand Royal would become a full-fledged boutique label by late 1992. The Beastie Boys promised to listen to each and every unsolicited demo tape sent to the Grand Royal post office box. In an approach similar to The Beatles’ Apple Records or Groovy Records, the imprint run by Pete Shelley of The Buzzcocks in the early 1980s, Grand Royal served as a creative playground for not only Mike D, Ad-Rock, and MCA, but their circle of pals as well.

In the process, the trio helped to create a revolution within the revolution during the alternative 1990s, pushing the boundaries of rock, hip-hop, hardcore, funk, and electronic beat music in bold new directions under the casual guise of dicking around.

Grand Royal as a label only lasted until 2001 when the business went bankrupt and met its ultimate demise in 2004 on the auction block on the site Bid4Assets.com.

“Our intentions were always simply to create a home for exciting music and the people who were passionate about it,” Mike D, who did most of the A&R for the label, told Billboard in 2001. “It really sucks that we can’t continue to do that.”

However, the unglamorous demise of Grand Royal should not overshadow the incredible discography amassed during the label’s eight-year run, offering a snapshot of how the Beasties kept the currents of innovation alive in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s death. Well, at least in their own way.

The best part about revisiting the Grand Royal catalog, be it as a longtime fan or as a total noob discovering it for the very first time, is that the majority of these titles are still affordable and in circulation on the used market, both on vinyl and the still-relevant CD.

Here are 10 Grand Royal classics worth seeking out and why they deserve your investment.

Luscious Jackson – In Search of Manny (1992)

Luscious Jackson In Search of Manny

The Beasties launched Grand Royal as a label beyond their own vanities when they released this gorgeous graffiti wall of an EP by their sister act, Luscious Jackson. Featuring former Beastie Boys drummer Kate Schellenbach, In Search of Manny was not as streamlined as the band’s full-lengths that followed, but it instills a gritty swagger that feels like walking down a bustling 4th and Broadway on a hot summer day. Broad City, Princess Nokia, and Ruth Langmore all owe a debt to Manny.

DFL – My Crazy Life (1993)

dfl my crazy life album cover

Nothing gave the hardcore community a bigger shot in the arm in the early ’90s than the Beasties returning to their roots on 1992’s Check Your Head with that monster cover of “Time For Livin’” by Sly Stone. At the time, it was only right and natural for Grand Royal to drop the debut LP from Dead Fucking Last (DFL), a group that counted Ad-Rock amongst its ranks at the time. On 1993’s My Crazy Life, DFL leap right into it with 20 minutes of pure pummel, backing up their claim to be “America’s Most Hardcore” — that’s 20 minutes total for the whole album. Plus, the distinctive way by which Adam Horovitz plays guitar across this record really makes My Crazy Life of a piece with the Beasties’ own hardcore material at the time, like 1995’s Aglio E Olio EP.

µoɩsτβoψζ (Moistboyz) – µoɩsτβoψζ (1994)

Moistboyz

Moistboyz, Mickey Melchiondo’s scuzz-rock combo with Guy Heller, a fellow son of New Hope, Pennsylvania, has been around for nearly as long as Melchiando’s more famous project, Ween. By the time we got to Moistboyz V in 2013, this one-trick pony of a debut is coughing up his lung behind a tree trying to catch up to the rest of the catalog. However, in 1994, Mickey and Dickie Moist turned in a tight and relentless EP that remains the sole essential in the group’s canon.

Noise Addict – Meet the Real You (1995)

noise addict meet the real you

One of the most publicized signings to Grand Royal was Australian pop wunderkind Ben Lee, who was all of 16 when his band, Noise Addict, caught the attention of Mike D via “I Wish I Was Him,” their 1993 paean to Evan Dando. And while their sole full-length, Meet the Real You, was preceded by the June 1995 release of Lee’s solo debut, Grandpaw Would (also on Grand Royal), the group’s scrappy blend of garage punk abandon and Lou Barlow-esque charm helped this record hold it’s own against such power-pop classics of the time as Matthew Sweet’s 100% Fun and Grand Prix by Teenage Fanclub.

Butter 08 ‎– Butter 08 (1996)

butter 08 album cover

In 1996, the scene surrounding Grand Royal proved to be the height of New York City cool, and Butter08 was The Dirty Mac of that era. The brainchild of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion drummer Russell Simins, the group featured director Mike Mills on guitar, along with Yuka Honda and Miho Hatori of Cibo Matto and Rick Lee of Skeleton Key. Their sole self-titled LP was a hot mess of fuzzed-out dance-funk and broken punk-soul that served as the hidden gem of this particular era of Grand Royal dominance, albeit one a listener could only appreciate if they went whole-hog into the scene that existed around this imprint.

BS 2000 ‎– BS 2000 (1997)

bs 200 album cover

Short for Beat Science 2000, this short-lived project between Ad-Rock and former Suicidal Tendencies drummer Amery “AWOL” Smith dove into an electronica-enriched ’97 with this EP that remains one of the sleeper gems of the Beasties multiverse. AWOL was a member of DFL alongside Horovitz, and the drummer also played on both Beasties’ Ill Communication and Aglio E Olio. On this EP, they slip in and out of phenomenon like vintage Liquid Liquid, whose complete works were once reissued by Grand Royal. It’s a little pricey on the used marketplace, but very well worth the investment.

Mr. Lif ‎– Farmhand (1999)

mr lif farmhand

Twenty years before Lil Nas X nicked Nine Inch Nails’ gothic banjo for “Old Town Road,” Mr. Lif turned out a bluegrass lick as a means to exhibit his dazzling wordplay honed from freestyle battles in the Boston underground rap community. “‘Farmhand’ and ‘Settle the Score’ were songs made under considerable pressure as I was racing to meet a deadline to be a part of a vinyl single series called ‘The Blowup Factor,’” Lif writes on his Bandcamp page about the song. “I met [with Grand Royal], and I was excited that they expressed interest in releasing my music. I like working under pressure and this was another great opportunity to get my music in front of more ears.”

Sean Lennon – Into The Sun (1998)

sean lennon into the sun

The Beasties played such a key role in helping Sean Lennon emerge from the enormity of his parents’ collective shadow when they signed John and Yoko’s only son in 1998 in the midst of his time as the bassist for Cibo Matto. Produced by his bandmate and ex-girlfriend, Yuka Honda, Into The Sun remains an auspicious debut from Sean as his own artist. With the backing of most of Cibo alongside such downtown Manhattan jazz luminaries as Dave Douglas and John Medeski, it relishes in the freedom of collaboration, much like his dad during those Pussy Cats days with Harry Nilsson. It was the first missive in a long and adventurous career that still continues to surprise and charm at every turn.

Various ‎– At Home with the Groovebox (1999)

Various At Home with the Groovebox

Before GarageBand, there was the Groovebox. And in 1998, the latest transfiguration of the device was Roland MC-505, which combined the forces of a MIDI controller, a music sequencer, and a drum machine; it also contained analog synth amalgamations including the arpeggiator, oscillators, voltage-controlled filter, control of attack, decay, sustain, and release. In 1999, Grand Royal, in conjunction with music merch giants Tannis Root, put together this compilation of the coolest of the cool in modern pop trying their hand at the Groovebox, including Sonic Youth, Pavement, Will Oldham, Beck, Cibo Matto, Air, and early synth pioneers Jean Jacques Perrey and Gershon Kingsley, among others. This album is pretty much like a copy of Grand Royal Magazine in a listening format in the best possible way.

At The Drive-In – Relationship of Command (2000)

At The Drive In Relationship of Command

There was not a hotter band in the year 2000 than El Paso’s At the Drive-In, and their signing to Grand Royal for the release of their third LP, Relationship of Command, felt like one of those magic moments of pure music biz kismet, like The Stooges signing to Elektra in 1969. When you listen to Command 20 years later, that urgency in their delivery and precision in their playing bursts out of your speakers with an immediacy that still slams of revolution. No other band was able to bring together the influences of Fugazi and Faith No More with the passion of At the Drive-In in 2000. Unfortunately, they broke up seven months after Relationship of Command came out, the first of several proverbial cannonballs that sent Grand Royal crashing into the sea in 2001. But as the label’s last classic title, this record ensured this creatively rich and unruly stomping grounds the Beasties built for themselves went out with a bang.

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